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It is, by design, a black box process.

Colleges live and die by who they admit. The elite admission process is designed to give them the largest selection pool possible and total control over who gets in out of it. They hold all cards and will never give that up.

There are great advantages to this. If you need 5 viola players one year. You can take 5 viola players. No sweat. Those five kids will never find out that's why they got in, but that might have been the case. Certainly, these are awesome kids. But in a pool of 12,000 awesome kids, sometimes the viola swings the committee's vote.

If you need some kids from Western Michigan, you can take some kids from Western Michigan. Maybe there's a donor there. Or an influential alum who's mad that no one from that part of the state has been admitted in years. Who knows? These kids are jokingly called "area adds." Again, these are great kids. But their point of origin and perspective on it might just be the thing that swings the vote in a sea of 12,000 awesome kids. I'm fairly certain that's why I was admitted and I only think this because I spent two years admitting thousands of kids. I was a strong applicant able to talk interestingly about my origins. My grades and scores sure didn't show the firepower that the kids out east had, but they've gotta take someone from podunk Michigan now and then.

The top colleges are skeptical of all the standardized tests and most of the high school curriculums. This is both because of arrogance but also because they have data that the public doesn't. Every year we'd get a very sophisticated, confidential briefing from the folks at one of the big companies that showed the latest trends in their data. This was always somewhat shocking and fascinating, too. I can't say much about it other than this: the kids you think would do well on the tests do incredibly well. The kids you think will do badly, do very, very badly. Across the board. Everywhere. No matter what.

The things that I couldn't handle, personally, were the minority admissions and the elite prep school admissions. This is not because anything particularly underhanded or amoral or unethical was happening, but because the debates and arguments about how these cases should be handled simply required intellectual bandwidth that I didn't have. I couldn't plot a course that would carry me through how to deal with these kids and didn't much feel like making the effort it seemed I'd have to make to do so. There were times when it just seemed so unfair to admit a student with crummy grades and crummy test scores (relative to our applicant pool) because of her racial background. But there were other times when I was so impressed by other qualities in a student's application that I fought for them harder than anyone.

I visited some scary high schools in Philadelphia one year and met a kid who'd been corresponding with the foremost authority on Bram Stoker's Dracula via e-mail, on his own. I told him I wrote my senior thesis about the novel and his face lit up. I think mine did a bit, too. It's not often you get to talk about your specialty with someone else.

This was an African American student at an inner city school. All the teachers had been telling me all day that he was "the one" I needed to talk to, because it was so ridiculously apparent to them that he was sincerely, legitimately, maybe desperately trying to transcend his circumstances. And now he's able to talk about the plot structure of Dracula with someone.

Sure enough, his credentials were average for the applicant pool, but he was as easy a case as any. To speak to the audience here, he was hacking his social circumstances and we were interested in that.

So yes, it's very byzantine. It's a mess. You'd read applications for 7 days a week for 4 months all winter, annotating them, scribbling in the margins, knowing that very, very few of these kids were getting in.

Then you block out a whole month of sitting around a table eating catered food, sweeping across whole states worth of applicants in 15-hour days, debating, discussing, arguing, fighting over kid after kid after kid in committees of 5-6 people. I always enjoyed that part, but we had one officer who would cry at some point almost every day during committee. She believed we were slamming the door on a lot of these kids.

Personally, I believe they'll do fine wherever they end up if they/re as good as they say are. It'd be great to dump a bunch of resources on them so they can live "the life" for 4 years, but you can't celebrate every kid.

P.S. While I've got the floor and your ears about college admissions, I run the web's only independent directory of College Admissions Consultants at http://CollegeConsultantReviews.com. I created this many moons ago and there's a lot of interest in it from consultants who find it appearing for searches for their names. I think there's a business in there somewhere but don't have the time or technical skills to build the killer directory site that would be needed. Hit me up if you're interested.




One more thing. And this is the idea that helped explain how this stuff worked.

If a school's admitting X kids, you have to completely forget about that number. That number is meaningless. There's a certain percentage of X that's just spoken for. There are kids you have to admit to keep the school running and to meet all its institutional needs. Once you figure out how many kids that is, subtract that from the number of kids you're supposedly admitting. THAT number is your actual class size, the number of kids who get admitted by the full process, being pitted against one another.

I found my job made a lot more sense once I told myself I was working to admit X-Y kids rather than just X kids. So when you hear about how low the admission rates are, realize that in reality, they're significantly lower due to so many spots being claimed in each class by legacies, minorities, athletes, geniuses, politicians kids, potential big donors etc. These kids don't face the same process as everyone else.


Wow! That's fascinating (and much more detailed a response than I imagined: thank you)!

I never thought there was more of a process than just looking quickly at lots of resumes. That process seems incredibly complex - but I'd imagine it helps select people to some degree when there're so many great people to pick from.


I'd be curious what you think about some NYC Upper East Side parents who think getting into the right pre-school determines the fate of their progeny for getting into an Ivy League..


It's all relative. Those kids are competing against eachother, not me from podunk Michigan. So it's an arms race. If the kid across the street goes to fancy pre-school, he's going to get advantages you'll miss out on that will put him ahead of the game.

I just read Gladwell's "Outliers" this week and he talks at length about this very thing.

Here's how he puts it. If you're in Canada and you were born just days after the cut-off for age group hockey, then when you're 10, you'll be 6-7 months older than a lot of the other kids on your team. That makes a big difference at that age. So you'll make the traveling team and the younger kids won't. On the traveling team, you get better coaches, better equipment, better opponents. So the gap between you and those other kids gets A LOT wider.

Five years later, you're maybe looking at the NHL while those other kids are sitting in the stands, because you got access to the better coaches, because you were born 6 months before them.

That's why the parents want to get their kids into the fancy pre-schools.

Outliers is an excellent book. Much, much better than "Blink," which I thought was kind of boring.


I might look into buying Outliers. Part of Gladwell's writing style has started to grate on me, but at that recommendation I suppose it's worth checking out?


yes it is worth it. i am reading it right now. I was skeptical at first, as I find books like this pretty shallow (like Freakonomics), but this one is actually good, and backed by real data in many of his points. Especially the hockey players one. The data is right there, the elephant in the room nobody really noticed it.

I have had this saying: You like what are you good at, and you become good at what you like.

When you start an activity/sport or something like chess at an early age, the differences between you and other kids are minor, and if you have even a small 2%-5% edge, you end up winning. And you endup liking it, and work/study/practice harder on that, and you end up really good at it later on, and your performance will be a magnitude better from those kids that were only little bit behind you.

And in sports the day you were born is very important. I guess the school you go (elementary/middle school) is very important too.


I just finished reading it as well. He plays the same abusive games with stats and data that he does in his other books ("science by anecdote", if you will), but it's still a good read.

There's a lot to be said for talent and hard work, but there's even more to be said about circumstance.


Save yourself the time and read the Ericson paper directly. Most of Outliers is based on it with anecdotes to pad it. Many of the newspaper articles about Outliers repeat the anecdotes in detail.

http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracti...


This is his best book by far. The prose style is pretty much the same, but he's got a more coherent story to tell, so you might find it less grating.


Yes. Gladwell likes to describe his books as intellectual adventure stories. I thought he finally delivered on the promise in Outliers.

The chapter about why commercial airliners crash was actually kind of gripping.

The chapter about how a moment of "evil" led to the destiny of his family changing was actually kind of moving.


How to estimate Y?


Ha! Trade secret.

But think about what institutions a school would want to keep around. How big's their sports program? Music program? Legacy admissions?


Awesome comment.

One question - you write "The top colleges are skeptical of all the standardized tests and most of the high school curriculums." and then " I can't say much about it other than this: the kids you think would do well on the tests do incredibly well. The kids you think will do badly, do very, very badly."

Why does this make you skeptical of the tests? Do you think the tests are testing the students' socioeconomic background rather than ability/potential?


You are wrong to use a slash between ability and potential. The kids with strong socioeconomic backgrounds do well and go on to do well. The kids who don't, don't.


So how does an admissions officer predict college success? Is it just assumed that people with strong socioeconomic backgrounds do well, and the people without don't?


As I understood it, my job was to "find the cool people...since they usually do really well."

And by cool, I mean people who are doing interesting stuff, interestingly. That was the definition I went by. Others had their own. That's why committee is so much fun.


Could you elaborate on this? I've always been curious what is going on in the admissions dynamics such that it will result in one person having the choice of 10 top tier schools versus 1-2. They all fall on the interesting side of the continuum, but what is going on that leads to these thresholds of admissions success?


The star quarterback of his smalltown football team goes down with a career ending injury during preseason practice before his junior year.

Instead of standing on the sidelines with a headset and clipboard and having the local paper write a human interest piece about how he's "helping the offence," he takes a job at a local marina taking care of the boats.

He's quickly put in charge of the place. While doing this, he learns he's fascinated by the boats, their lines and curves and decides he wanted to study architecture. (I fudged the details here but that's the story.)

Let's break this down:

1. Kid faces setback. 2. Kid responds in unexpected way. 3. Adults recognize his competence and give him considerable responsibilities. 4. Kid handles this well (his boss wrote a great letter of recommendation) 5. While working on his unusual project, kid discovers passion for something. 6. Kid wants to come to your school to engage with that passion.

That's kind of the textbook example. Admittedly, his social circumstances (middle class white kid with lots of connections via football) helped him make that decision between steps 1 and 2. I bet he had a parent who was like "son, you're done with football. Let's go on a new adventure." And that can make all the difference. But still, the kid executed.

We didn't admit the guy. That's why the job's tough. Because there's 1000 kids with stories as good as his or better.

But he certainly got more attention than the average kid.


So who is a better bet, from an admission's office's perspective, a kid from a poor background or a kid from a very wealthy background, assuming their grades, quality of high school education, test scores, et al are identical? (I'm assuming that the main concern is the student's academic performance in college, NOT his career afterward; obviously, the rich kid will pwn in that aspect.)

I would bet on the poor kid, because he's likely to have higher "g", to so speak. Are you arguing that the rich kid is the better bet, because his advantaged background will continue to pay off in a way that's underrated by the standardized tests and grades?


Well, that's not really a fair question. Each kid would get looked at one his own. The rich kid might make a great impression. The poor kid might make a great impression. They would never be set side by side for an either/or. It just isn't done that way.

Also, your assumptions are pretty out there.

1. The odds of a poor kid getting the same quality of education as a rich kid are very, very low, especially if you knew just HOW good of an education rich kids in the U.S. can get. The most informative part of my two years in admissions was the week I spent visiting elite boarding schools in New England to meet with students thinking about applying.

My meals and conversations with the students there were astounding. Their teachers all had PhDs. There was not one ugly or overweight kid in any of the schools. The students were years ahead of where I'd been in math and science coming out of a public high school in the Midwest. And they aggressively questioned me about every aspect of Princeton's curriculum and admission process. When I would visit public high schools in the Midwest, the kids rarely, if ever had questions for me. They had no clue what to even ask me about. "Princeton" was just so completely foreign to them. Not so for these kids, who all had friends currently studying there. Many of them had siblings who'd graduated from there already.

So this was a real eye-opener. You can be the best kid in a crappy school, but the fact that you were in a crappy school is going to have an impact in the grand scheme of things. That's why we'd never compare kids across contexts. It just made no sense.

Similarly, the test scores, grades "et all" for the rich kid would probably all be higher.

If there was a "poor kid" who had incredible credentials AND didn't sound like a basket case, then he'd be hotly pursued by every top school in the country. But those kids are very rare, so it's not realistic to pit a student like that against a "rich kid with good grades and scores" which is as common as air in these applicant pools.

If I did have to pick, I'd take the more precocious kid every time. I'd pick the kid who's able to make stuff happen for him. There are poor kids that can do this. There are rich kids that can do this. It's much, much rarer to find a kid from a less privileged background with this mindset though.


There was not one ugly or overweight kid in any of the schools.

When I left my public school for a private, east coast boarding school, the lack of any fat kids was the thing that struck me the most the first day I arrived. The second thing that struck me was the utter lack of assholes and bullies.

One other bit of food for thought: I ended up going to private high school and then ivy league for college. But today I consider myself less educated than my dad, who paid his own way through a lesser tier college. The reason is my dad studied engineering and had useful skills by the time he graduated. Very few ivy league students learn anything useful in undergrad. The college is mainly a big social club. Kids from a disadvantaged background can derive advantage from mixing with this higher social class, but the its not the classroom education that's value add. For this reason, I think people should worry less about inequities in ivy league admission. The schools simply aren't value-add anyway, so attending has little bearing on your life outcome.


Thanks for all the inside info, brandnewlow. I actually went to Princeton for undergrad in the 90s and find your insight fascinating.

What I found with the prep school kids there (I was from a mediocre public school) was that the great education they received in high school did not teach them to learn on their own. This was particularly true in the sciences (physics, in particular) but might not have been true at all for those following the pre-med/i-banker/mgmt consulting track.

Even though they might have seen some of the material in high school, the depth at which it is addressed in college called for a level of thinking that depended more on mental maturity then on familiarity with the material. I remember a classmate from France who showed me his linear algebra notes from high school and had obviously done matrix manipulations but just couldn't get the proofs in Mathey's 1st year linear algebra class. He ended up switching to industrial engineering, doing management consulting, MBA, etc., and is assuredly making more $ than I am.


I met a lot of folks who took advantage of their advantages, and a lot who didn't.

But the real thing I noticed was that all these folks talked to their professors differently than I did. I was intimidated and afraid of them. I told myself that most of them were jerks, when in reality I was just really insecure about my ability to say something intelligent. My perception of authority was completely different than theirs.

I took a class with Robert George during my sophomore year, Constitutional Interpretation. It was considered one of the most challenging humanities courses in the school when I was there.

There was a 90 minute, fast-moving Socratic lecture once a week. George wanders the lecture hall, pointing at students and pulling them into arguments about the points of whatever cases you're discussing.

Then there was a 90 minute precept once a week. 20 students and either the professor or a preceptor (often a NYC lawyer friend of George's) would lead a conversation about the week's cases.

Basically, precept was a 90-minute, 20 person argument. And I just folded. I'd never been on a debate team. I'd been raised to think arguing and questioning other people in public was the height of rudeness. What happened in precept just did-not-compute. I'd read all the material. I'd make just as many notes as the other guy, but when it came time to "fight" about it, I just shut down. I was terrified.

Now, the other students were probably just as terrified as I was. But they'd also probably been in classes like this before. There was some precedent for talking about ideas in this sort of controlled, but boisterous way. What looked to me like a lot of fighting was really just a spirited debate. I was just completely psyched out by it.

That was a real wake-up call. I was able to see that there was a basic tool of "successful" people that I seemed to lack in the toolbox. I got a lot better at it eventually. But that's the sort of difference I observed.


As you mentioned, part of the reason you didn't have this skill initially was in part because of how you were raised. It didn't have anything to do with how smart or how good a student you were.

What I didn't realize until well after graduation was how the non-academic side of the Princeton experience can shape one's career, e.g., the socialization that happens at "the Street" or the during spring breaks. These were just training grounds for later life. Personally, I found the academic side fascinating but didn't care much at all for the social scene there, but in retrospect, I probably wasn't sophisticated enough to appreciate it (and maybe still am not :) )

Being from a middle class background, after graduation I expected to go grad school, get some more education and get a job as an engineer. Somehow most of my classmates viewed engineering as a stepping stone to something else: mgmt consulting, business, etc. I wondered where I missed this info, and I think it was at the eating clubs (I had done Stevenson Hall). Not to say that I regret my choices -- they simply never appeared on my radar and so I didn't make a conscious choice.


I didn't get involved in Street culture either. Looking back, I don't see how I could have fit into it at the time. Nevertheless, the ordeal of bickering at an eating club probably would have been a good experience to have under my belt.


But the real thing I noticed was that all these folks talked to their professors differently than I did. I was intimidated and afraid of them. I told myself that most of them were jerks, when in reality I was just really insecure about my ability to say something intelligent. My perception of authority was completely different than theirs.

It's very interesting that you bring this up. I noticed this, in the workplace, when I worked at a hedge fund. People who came from wealthy backgrounds had no fear of the boss and seemed, from the outset, to be half a level above same-rank co-workers. They had a refined knack for putting authority in its place, which doesn't mean being a jerk; on the contrary, it means doing what the boss wants while "training" the relationship as one among equals. They treated work as an extended education, and their relationship with their boss as mentor/protege. This is an attitude that's not restricted to the well-heeled, but somehow, those from privileged backgrounds were able to do it in a way that didn't piss anyone off. (In this case, you have to worry more about pissing off co-workers than the boss.)


So, have you learned to do this? If so, has it worked for you?


I'm so-so at this skill; I'm much better than when I was 22, but not great. I'm not at the level of proficiency where I could enter a large, elite firm at the entry level and become the CEO's protege within a month... and most rich kids can do this.

I'm in a startup, so there isn't this concept of authority or hierarchy in my case.

What I'd say is that you need to be able to go to work without fear. Fearing the boss antagonizes him on a subconscious (if not conscious level). He doesn't want to be a boss, in most cases. Fearing co-workers can socially isolate you. Careful confidence is one thing, but fear is professionally crippling, and the vast majority of people from middle-class backgrounds have way too much of it for their career's sake.

So, to answer your question: I don't personally go to work with fear, but I'm not in a hierarchical environment. I don't know how I would handle one if I went back into one.

One other trait I've noticed of Ivy League graduates in the workplace is that they handle grunt work pretty gracefully. You might think the opposite; having come from prestigious schools, they might act as if they're "too good" to do menial tasks, but the opposite seems to be the case. They handle it gracefully because it doesn't damage their confidence. (Of course, if you give an elite college grad only grunt tasks for 6 months, he'll leave because he's not learning anything; but that's different from the ability to take on an unpleasant project without getting insecure about being assigned it.)


If there was a "poor kid" who had incredible credentials AND didn't sound like a basket case, then he'd be hotly pursued by every top school in the country.

In this regard, how poor is poor? And, for my better understanding of your statement, what are some examples of "incredible credentials"? This whole discussion is quite interesting to me, as I applied to exactly one college in my day, in the 1970s, my state's flagship university, largely for financial reasons. I was not aware then of what I hear now, that more selective colleges will both admit and fund students from working class or poorer backgrounds.


Poor would be minimum wage or below. So food stamps, free school lunches, 3 pairs of pants.

Incredible credentials would be 2400 SAT, 780-800 on 3 or more SAT IIs and straight A's.

And yes, the top schools are flush with cash, though they took a beating this past year, and they are using it to bring in kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It's one of the big trends in the Ivies over the last 10 years.


Incredible credentials would be 2400 SAT, 780-800 on 3 or more SAT IIs

Fewer than 300 members of class of 2008 worldwide scored 2400 on the new three-section SAT,

http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/sat_perce...

so that is a rarely encountered characteristic even in the applicant pools of Ivy League colleges. (Princeton's entering class of about 1,243 students is numerous enough to include all of those students, if they all apply to Princeton.)

http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/college-admissions/41382...

And not all of the 2400-scorers on the SAT Reasoning Test have the specified scores on the SAT Subject Tests. So I guess I wonder if slightly less incredible credentials would still be noteworthy.

SAT fee waivers

http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/sat/calenfees/fe...

or their ACT equivalent

http://www.actstudent.org/faq/answers/feewaiver.html

appear to be the usual way that colleges identify low-income students. The specified income level

http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/sat/counselors-gu...

for SAT fee waivers is meant to match the eligibility levels for some federal programs, but might imply somewhat more prosperity than "food stamps, free school lunches, 3 pairs of pants." For sure, anyone eligible for the fee waivers would be shocked by the LIST price of any Ivy League college.


Poor would be minimum wage or below. So food stamps, free school lunches, 3 pairs of pants.

So if he's poor enough that the college can brag about admitting him, he gets in, but if he's run-of-the-mill economic 15th-percentile, he has no shot unless he manages to finagle his way into a high school offering the "right" extracurriculars (e.g. crew)?

Incredible credentials would be 2400 SAT, 780-800 on 3 or more SAT IIs and straight A's.

Out of curiosity, is the difference between 2300 and 2400, or even 2200 and 2400, really that significant? I know that it matters a lot in admissions, but I don't think it has much predictive value over academic performance at the upper levels. IQ tests become less predictive at the upper end, and I wouldn't be surprised if SATs were the same way.


economic 15th-percentile

What do you mean by "economic 15th-percentile" (mentioned in more than one of your replies) in this context? What income level?

http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/in...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_...


$18-30k works, which would be about 15th-percentile once students, pensioners, and part-time workers are taken out. I'm talking about the level at which a person is definitely poor, but not in abject poverty. In upstate New York, that level of income wouldn't make a person impoverished.


The income range you mention is eligible for SAT fee waivers

http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/sat/counselors-gu...

and is heavily recruited by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, at least, being well within the scope of their financial aid initiatives.


"Recruiting", in this sense, just means encouraging them to apply. These colleges want lots of applications, because it makes their acceptance rate lower, and they'll occasionally find a diamond. That's already common knowledge.

On the other hand, encouraging people to apply with almost no chance of admitting them is not "recruiting"; it's playing a numbers game. I say "no chance of admitting" because it's nearly impossible to clear the extracurricular bar at the socioeconomic 15th percentile. At that level, the "right" extracurriculars are not offered, but you're not so poor that you can pull off an "overcoming challenges" essay (that was the admissions schtick du jour ca. 1998-2003) or that a college can brag about admitting you.


I'll simply say that what you post here is not current information (it may very well have been current information at the turn of the century) and leave it at that. The income range you mention is taken into account in admission decision-making today, and I know current examples of that happening in this year's admission cycle. The Laura D'Andrea Tyson article I posted as a separate submission recently

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/03_27/b3840045_...

seems to have been part of changing the culture of university admission offices. A student from a family with an income at the fifteenth percentile of national household incomes is a rare student at the most selective colleges and IF the student has competitive grades and test scores and some economically reasonable extracurricular involvement, the student has a great chance of admission today and a very good chance of lavish financial aid. Colleges today do brag about admitting students at that income level.

See also

http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2007/12.06/99-admissions....

for more on the recruiting efforts.


My meals and conversations with the students there were astounding.

Right. Very wealthy kids become very good at impressing people early on in their lives.

If there was a "poor kid" who had incredible credentials AND didn't sound like a basket case, then he'd be hotly pursued by every top school in the country. But those kids are very rare, so it's not realistic to pit a student like that against a "rich kid with good grades and scores" which is as common as air in these applicant pools.

It depends on what you mean by "poor". If we're talking about someone from abject poverty, or from Wyoming in a year short on mountain-state applicants, you're correct. If you're talking about someone from upstate New York at the economic 15th-percentile, you're wrong. He would not be highly sought; he'd probably be turned away for not knowing which extracurriculars were "right" (e.g. crew, sailing, lacrosse) and which were not.


The minute you standardize something, you make it meaningless.

Sometimes tests show you how naturally bright students are (I didn't prepare for the SATs and got a 2190, including one "perfect" score category). More often they indicate who spent the most time preparing - learning how to "cheat" the system, in other words. Some students take years of SAT prep, and that completely ruins the idea of it being an aptitude test.


The minute you standardize something, you make it meaningless.

Indeed. Expressing units of measurement in terms of feet or meters? Standardization makes them meaningless. Instead, I'll just wave my hands in the air and say "roughly this long." And (X)HTML standards? Don't get me started. Lets all just throw angled brackets to the browser, that's far more meaningful.

Incidentally, your actual complaint seems to be that some existing standardized tests are poorly designed. This is a problem of test design, not standardization.


No, his actual complaint is once you standardize a test, schools with a lot of resources will "teach to the test", giving their students an advantage.


That's not a bad thing for a sufficiently well designed test. Here are examples of decent tests which I taught to. "Teaching to the test" and "teaching calculus" were basically identical.

http://cims.nyu.edu/~stucchio/classes/fall2008/2005Spring1aF...

http://cims.nyu.edu/~stucchio/classes/fall2008/2007Fall1aFin...

http://cims.nyu.edu/~stucchio/classes/fall2008/2008Spring1aF...


"Teaching to the test" and "teaching calculus" were basically identical.

I'd argue that if that's how math is being taught, there's a problem. "Teaching to the test" taught me to hate math in high school. In middle school, we were given a brilliant teacher who was allowed to teach however he wanted, and we left 8th grade understanding trigonometry better than most of the high schoolers we were with.

Have you read Paul Lockhart's "A Mathematician's Lament"? That highlights the problems fundamental with the current math curriculum. From the tests that you linked me to, with all due respect, it doesn't look like you're doing anything different: you're spitting out formulas to be memorized. That's not math: that's mechanics. I hate that students are taught like that.


The mechanics are important, and calc 1 is the course in which they are taught. If the mechanics of algebra and calculus are not second nature to you, everything that follows will be almost impossible. Similarly, when learning programming, you need to learn to write syntactically correct code, and when learning a foreign language you need to memorize vocabulary. It isn't fun, but it is necessary.

Later courses are more focused on mathematical reasoning, and tests reflect this as well. For example:

http://www.math.rutgers.edu/grad/phd_requirements/written_qu...

These exams are also pretty tough to game (even though they are standardized); the easiest way to teach to the qual is to teach how to reason about real/complex analysis and algebra.

You don't seem to agree with the curriculum. Lockhart's article claims that courses like Calc are not well suited for elementary school math (and I agree). That's an orthogonal issue.

The calc tests do a decent job of measuring what they are trying to measure: how well students understand the mechanics and concepts of differentiation and integration.


Okay, I'm sorry. I overgeneralized.

The minute you standardize something and use it as a method of competition - be it GPA or SAT score or pretty much anything else where you accept people into something based on a number - you make that number meaningless. The presence of numbers means that people are suddenly able to hack the system, and that means that the numbers don't mean a thing at all. They are no longer indicative of good performance.


I would be willing to bet that there is some correlation between a student's performance on the SAT and their ability to complete college-level coursework. After all, it is not mandatory that colleges accept it, and most seem to think it is worth their while.

Do you think the difference between an 800 and a 1400 student is "meaningless"?


It depends entirely on what kind of person that 1400 student is.

Maybe I have a 1400 without studying. Or maybe I spent an hour a day every day for three years so that I could get that 1400. I have a friend who got a 2390 on the SATs, 800s in something like 6 SAT2s, all because she studied for them nonstop. If she hadn't studied, she wouldn't have that same score.

The insidious part is that we're taught that the difference between a 2390 and a 2400 is more than the difference between a 2380 and a 2390. Either you're "perfect", or you're not. That doesn't mean perfect people rise to the top. It means that "perfect" students are the ones who waste their lives studying to look better on paper, when in reality they're just wasting their time on something meaningless.


I would be willing to bet that the student with the self-discipline necessary to study until he raises his grade by 600 points (a near impossibility) and the student who is bright enough to score a 1400 without studying are both better college prospects than the student that scored an 800, on average.

I agree that too much can be read into tests, but to say they are meaningless is to overstate the case.


I have an undying dislike for standardization, because it's what influenced my application decisions and I'm not very happy where I am. So there's definitely some bias.

That said, I (and a few students in my college who were in the same situation as me) had a very, very low grade point average considering I wanted to apply to snooty upper class schools. (A 3.1 unweighted means you have a hard-as-hell time getting into any of the really elite places.) Beyond that, many colleges wanted SAT 2s, and I bluntly refused to take any more standardized tests senior year. I was sick and fed up with taking tests just to place into schools. I still think it's a terrible system that wastes students' time for the sake of assigning a number. And so I, and many other extremely bright and talented kids, ended up merely going to a good public school, hoping that it would be what we wanted out of college. As it turns out, a lot of us are dissatisfied. And it annoys me that a lot of kids that aren't as comparatively bright as that tiny group got into much more prestigious schools, because while we were doing our own things (one kid went to Colombia senior year to do work with their science labs, another was a multiintrumentalist in a variety of different-genre bands, so on and so forth), other kids were spending every minute of the day studying and looking for ways to peak out their GPA. The kids who were cramped and rebellious and spent their time going their own way as decisively as possible almost all wound up at public schools (the musician went to Rutgers, the scientist went to Penn State, I and a few artist/musicians went to TCNJ), and while the schools we're at aren't bad, they're certainly mediocre compared to what the best schools have to offer. We wound up there because we hated the useless, monotonous system and so our scores were lower and while I think if I could do it again, I'd make sure to do better in school - it would have been worth the tedium - I hate that that's the choice, either play to a really shitty system or get subpar results. So in my mind I imagine a system that focuses exclusively on finding those exceptions to the rules.


I understand your distaste for standardized tests. But I also sympathize with the impossible job of admissions officers sifting through thousands of applications to find the best students for their school. At the end of the day, an extra data point helps, especially if they find that data point is correlated to graduation rates or other student performance metrics in college.

You might be more awesome than your grades indicate, but it's hard for them to know that. I agree that what you do outside of class should count, and count alot! But as far as I know, they already do take that into consideration. Admissions folks are just trying to do the best they can.

Sure, the system sucks, but it is set up to solve a fundamentally hard problem for which there exists no good solution. But I don't think the grass is that much greener on the other side. The public schools you mentioned are very good, and it won't hurt you to go there unless you are trying to become President of the United States. I think you'll turn out okay regardless. It sounds like you and your friends are very bright and capable (It scares me slightly how smart the younger folk are on Hacker News. I blame the internet) . I don't think a top 10 college makes that much of a difference versus a top 20 college for a bright and capable person.

Bucking the system doesn't really help. Nobody in a position of authority knows that you are doing it, and if they did they wouldn't care. It only hurts you. Also, the irrationality of the systems you are involved in will only get worse after school, so you might want to start practicing your patience for stupid systems with power over you. You oughta see the application I had to fill out to get my passport (I think I got randomly flagged by the DHS. I had to provide a photo-copy of my high-school yearbook! And I'm 25! How the hell am I supposed to find a copy of my high school yearbook?!!?! As it turns out: not easily).


You might be more awesome than your grades indicate, but it's hard for them to know that. I agree that what you do outside of class should count, and count alot! But as far as I know, they already do take that into consideration. Admissions folks are just trying to do the best they can.

That's exactly the problem! The system should be designed specifically for those exceptions - they're the people with the most to offer society.

The public schools you mentioned are very good, and it won't hurt you to go there unless you are trying to become President of the United States.

They aren't necessarily bad. They're just unpleasant. Public schools attract a sort of apathetic student that private schools don't, and despite the constantly-made comparisons, the lack of funding shows. I'm about 30 minutes away from Princeton, and every time I visit is a slap in the face.


I ... had a very, very low grade point average considering I wanted to apply to snooty upper class schools.

Confused as to why you're against standardized testing. Acing the SAT is like a magic wand for smart kids with subpar GPAs.


I don't like standardized rankings for anything. I dislike the SAT as much as I dislike the GPA. As it happens, the SAT doesn't matter much at all for college applications as far as I'm aware. Other factors play a much more important part.


The year I took the SATs (1600 scale back then) someone on the Educational Testing Service board threw in a knuckle-ball with an analogy question in the Verbal section that used the term winnowing. I wish I could remember the question..

Post-test, there were quite a few complaints from the super students (some of them confident in scoring in the 1450-1500 range), as it was a curve ball because as suburban-bred kids how could we be expected to know what winnowing meant and more importantly, the correct multiple-choice answer.

Winnowing: the act of separating grain from chaf


Winnowing is not a terribly esoteric word. This whole comment thread is a discussion on winnowing. It's often used in literature, and I believe it is used in certain translations of the Bible.


The irony is that the word "winnowing" winnowed the students.


Post-test, there were quite a few complaints from the super students (some of them confident in scoring in the 1450-1500 range), as it was a curve ball because as suburban-bred kids how could we be expected to know what winnowing meant and more importantly, the correct multiple-choice answer.

That's what I hate: this idea of a "perfect" test, or a test that has an "acceptable" range.

Perhaps I'm drawn to the things I am - art, entrepreneurship - because they're harder to measure and can't as easily set standards. Or perhaps I'm drawn to those things because they're more meaningful than things that you can judge by assigning a number or plotting a chart of scores. In either case, it annoys me when people take numbers too seriously in that regard. The only numbers that really ought to matter are personal numbers: not your numbers compared to somebody else's.


This is random and unrelated to your (excellent) comment, but I recognize the building in the banner graphic on College Consultant Reviews as the Wren Building at William and Mary.


Nice! When I built the site (in Joomla, uck!) I think I ran a search on iStockPhoto for "university" and picked the stodgiest looking place I could find.


Just to make sure my memory is right, I did a GIS, and yup, that's what it is: http://www.flickr.com/photos/80823321@N00/466827649/

Stodgiest looking place? You just made my day. W&M has a chip on its shoulder when it comes to the Ivies. It's not an Ivy, and it's usually not thought of being in the same class as the Ivies, but they've been around as long. Every official document from the school says "Chartered 1693" because while Harvard started first, W&M got its charter first.


I visited there actually when looking for schools. Stodgy is the right word for it! Great school, too.


Solid, but you missed the enormous influence of yield optimization, especially among the Ivy League colleges that use sophisticated models to predict yield.

Colleges care intensely about yield, for two reasons. The first is that it reduces uncertainty in the composition of the incoming class. The second is that it's how, internally, undergraduate admissions offices measure their colleges' relative prestige. Harvard doesn't especially care if it shows up as #4 vs. #1 in US News's capricious rankings one year, but if Harvard loses to Yale in cross-admissions, there'll be hell to pay for the Harvard admissions office. Yield numbers are the "bottom line" regarding how good a job the admissions office has done.

Yield optimization plays a huge role in the process. Harvard, for example, aims for an 80% yield rate and generally rejects any applicant for whom it estimates a lower-than-70% chance of attending, regardless of qualifications (my boss at a prior job knew a former Harvard admissions officer). The "yield probability" is based on a number of factors, but mostly number of campus visits and interviews, in addition to the other schools to which the student applied.

Anyone who really wants to attend a selective school has to clear the yield bar by showing a higher-than-baseline likelihood of attending. Harvard doesn't have a 75% yield rate only because of its prestige and the quality of its program-- although those are obviously very important factors-- but also because it's extremely good at selecting people who will attend.


Sorry man, but you've gotta back this stuff up. If you worked there, then, by all means, let us know. It all sounds good, but is it true?

To your points: I didn't talk about the influence of yield rates because at no point during my two years in admissions was a decision ever made on a kid based on whether or not we thought they'd matriculate to our school. This simply did not happen in my presence, so I didn't speak to it.

Note This is one of the problems I have with college admissions consultants. They charge kids an arm and leg to help them get into elite schools, but few if any of them actually ever admitted kids to elite schools. All they can do is look at the black box, see what goes in, what goes out, and then make educated guesses about why. That's not good enough for the prices they charge.

Unfortunately, most of the folks I know who have worked in admissions are so humbled by the process that they wouldn't think to sell kids on the idea that they could get them into an elite school. I tried it for about 3 weeks during grad school and just couldn't do it. It was too ridiculous. The kids that are going to get in are going to get in. The kids that won't, won't. I could take a big payday to inform kids that they will or won't be admitted, but no one wants that service. They want you to polish them into a winner, even if it's not the case.

So the bad information and the snake-oil salesmen dominate the conversation, folks like these people http://ivywise.com


The kids that are going to get in are going to get in. The kids that won't, won't.

At any given school, yes... but what if you were to give people advice about which colleges to apply to? There has to be some way to optimize the effort here, and that's got to be worth something. Especially when helping to rank the second-tier choices -- so you didn't get into Harvard, but maybe you happen to know that such-and-such College favors applicants like your client for such-and-such reasons.


Well, how do you know that college such-and-such favors those kinds of applicants? Do you work there to be able to know for sure? How many schools can you work at to know for sure?

You are right to suggest that parents could use help knowing where to apply. That's the service that people wanted more than anything during my brief adventure in consulting. It was also the one that I felt the worst offering. Every school is different. Every school is a little weird. I don't think anyone can tell a kid where he'd be best off going to college.

Sure, you can read up on what the different guide books say and offer an opinion, but it's still a shot in the dark.

My advice to kids is always to go visit and see if they could see themselves hanging out on campus there. When I was in high school I visited about 20 colleges with my family. They all looked nice, but none of them inspired my imagination. When I visited Princeton, after I was admitted, I got the sense of a place full of people much, much smarter than myself. I felt like I'd somehow been invited to Hogwarts or the Jedi Academy. That sense of disbelief was what cemented my decision. I figure that's as good as method of picking a school as any.


My advice to kids is always to go visit and see if they could see themselves hanging out on campus there.

How practical is that advice for the low-income families mentioned in your other helpful reply? I guess you come from the upper Midwest, as I do. Were your family visits to places like Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, or to colleges in your state and nearby states?


It's not practical at all. But it's not impossible.

It's just being relentlessly resourceful as PG explained last week.

As an officer you're on duty a few days a week. This means you greet the visiting families. It also means you troubleshoot any weird things that happen in the waiting room.

Probably once a month you'd have a kid who hitchhiked across country to come visit and who would ask about where he could stay nearby. Or kids who would cut school to make it there for a visit.

Also, if a family's hiring outside help with the admissions process, then they've already blocked out time to go visit colleges.

I only visited Princeton after I was admitted. I applied blind. My father had almost had a chance to teach there while he was in the army and had always thought highly of the place. I applied to all the big Midwestern colleges and we thought, what the heck, let's apply to one of these fancy Ivies.

It's kind of a classic story of a dream deferred.


I only visited Princeton after I was admitted. I applied blind.

When did you apply?

It must have been in the '80s or '90s, because these days it's pretty much impossible to get into the Ivies without a campus visit on record (or two, preferably). The assumption is that anyone who hasn't done a visit or do doesn't have enough enthusiasm to attend.


these days it's pretty much impossible to get into the Ivies without a campus visit on record (or two, preferably).

I doubt that completely, as I know plenty of counterexamples. The eight colleges in the Ivy League

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_League

mostly don't have any policy at all of tracking student interest when making admission decisions. All eight of those colleges know that they will get a good yield out of the smallish number of students that they admit.


We did not track visits. We still recommended them though. A lot of kids would either get fired up once they came to visit, or they'd realize they didn't want to go there. Either way, they had better info.


I'll chime in with counterexamples also; I have an ex-girlfriend and a number of cousins who got into multiple ivies (and Stanford) prior to campus visits.


2000. Graduated in '04. Worked in admissions from 04-06.


You must have been a very impressive applicant to have gotten into Princeton without a campus visit in 2000.


I was a strong applicant from a random place in Michigan. Someone in the office must have taken a liking to something I wrote and pushed me into the admit pile. It's not possible to take credit for that.


I didn't talk about the influence of yield rates because at no point during my two years in admissions was a decision ever made on a kid based on whether or not we thought they'd matriculate to our school. This simply did not happen in my presence, so I didn't speak to it.

I find this difficult to believe, given that I know people who've worked in admissions at a surprisingly large number of colleges-- private and public, universities and liberal arts colleges, elite and average-- and they've all indicated the importance of yield. It's not something that will get a mediocre applicant in, but it's easy for a good one to get rejected on low predicted yield.

This is one of the problems I have with college admissions consultants. They charge kids an arm and leg to help them get into elite schools, but few if any of them actually ever admitted kids to elite schools. All they can do is look at the black box, see what goes in, what goes out, and then make educated guesses about why. That's not good enough for the prices they charge.

I would argue with you on this one. The outcome can be altered, but most people don't have the means or knowledge necessary to do so. For example, consider a student with a 3.9+ from a reasonably good public school, and a 2200 on the SATs, and otherwise middle-of-the-road "soft factors". He's not getting in, obviously. If he improves his SAT scores to 2300-2400, or spends three times as much time on his admissions essay, it won't matter in the least. He's still not getting in.

On the other hand, if he had attended a prep high school (it's ridiculously easy to get into elite colleges from a brand-name prep) he would have a guidance counselor with enough social connections to state his case personally in the admissions office, and he'd almost certainly get in. Or, if he had a great internship-- especially of the kind that can only be bought, in high school, using elite connections-- he could get in.

The service provided by "admissions counselors" like Kat Cohen is the sale of their social connections: an internship at a NYC art gallery in your junior year, a recommendation from a Senator, etc. Everything else they provide is pretty useless. The reason this business model begins to fail at some point is that connection-pimping doesn't scale. Kat Cohen can do this for 3 students per year, but if she's pounding her network for 100 students, her "connections" are going to become annoyed at being sold to rich high schoolers, and fade away from her and her efforts.


I defer to your knowledge of what your friends said about admissions at their school. I can only speak to my own experience at a single, Ivy League school where we did not once use yield considerations to make a decision.

I could put on my Ivy League snob hat at this point and wonder aloud if maybe schools that aren't Princeton don't have the luxury of being able to make decisions without thinking about yield. That's quite possible. But again, unless you have direct evidence, you're just relying on rumors and what you'd like to think about the process, which is in part why things get so messy with admissions.

To the blind man, the different parts of the elephant all feel like different animals. All I'm asking is that you concede that you're blind in this situation.

To point #2: I don't see anything that contradicts what I said. Most college admission consultants have not actually voted on kids as officers at elite schools. Therefore they invent a system that seems to deliver results in some way. They're selling a product they only partly understand under the pretense that they completely understand it.

What I'm arguing is that no one completely understands it.


So, if time_management is blind because he's relying on the anecdotes of others, how does your comment help? It is just another anecdote, and one from someone who admittedly has much less experience and he knows less well than the other anecdote originators. It is presumptuous for such an anecdote to demand higher credibility.


I know people who've worked in admissions at a surprisingly large number of colleges-- private and public, universities and liberal arts colleges, elite and average-- and they've all indicated the importance of yield.

Names of the colleges, please? The great majority of colleges have yields well below 50 percent,

http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/college-search-selection...

so the great majority of colleges are already accustomed to admitting a majority of students who will NOT enroll at one of the colleges that admitted them.

Your comment would be much more informative if we had some idea exactly which colleges you are talking about, and which persons affiliated with each college you have spoke to, and how recently.


Names of the colleges, please? The great majority of colleges have yields well below 50 percent,

Right, but regardless of whether the yield is 20% or 70%, colleges care immensely about maximizing it. Higher yield means less uncertainty about class composition and size, as well as higher prestige.

Your comment would be much more informative if we had some idea exactly which colleges you are talking about, and which persons affiliated with each college you have spoke to, and how recently.

Ivy League (x2), 3 and 1 year ago. Elite liberal arts college, 3 years ago. Mid-sized West Coast school, 4 years ago. State flagship, 3 years ago.


Here's a very detailed article about Harvard's recruiting strategy.

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_34/b3998441....

Harvard starts by sending 70,000 letters to high school students in their junior year (second-to-last year) of high school. Telephone calls are also part of the recruiting effort. These days that provides almost 30,000 applicants for just more than 1,600 spaces in each year's entering class.




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